Ruth Wisse, an emeritus professor of Yiddish literature at Harvard and an unfailingly impressive commentator on the Jewish world, has uttered a desperate cry about the moral and spiritual state of American Jews.
Writing in Mosaic, she ponders the effect of liberal ideologies espoused by the media and universities that are promoting anti-Semitism and damaging foundational American values.
The flourishing of American Jews, she says, lies at the heart of American pluralism. But she warns: “The surest sign of an America in retreat would be a Jewish community in retreat from its own Jewish heritage.”
This baleful development is what she now sees happening, largely as a result of widespread ignorance among American Jews of their own ancient culture.
Last January, more than 200 rabbis signed a statement expressing their concerns about the “shrinking space of ‘permissible’ discourse,” self-censorship and burgeoning anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. This, they wrote, had arisen from an ideology that “in its most simplistic form sees the world solely in binary terms of oppressed versus oppressor, and categorizes individuals into monolithic group identities” on issues such as race and gender.
These rabbis have been left aghast by the all-too visible harm being done by the “social justice” agenda that has been embraced by the majority of American Jews. But since these are mostly rabbis from progressive denominations, it is unclear whether they also acknowledge the harm embodied in that agenda itself.
For in signing up to it, “progressive” Jews have embraced a set of values that are inimical to Judaism. More devastating still, they have convinced themselves that these are in fact authentic Jewish values updated for the modern age.
There could hardly be a more graphic illustration of this fundamental error than the current period of introspection culminating in next week’s Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.
This is a period of repentance and forgiveness. Observant Jews ask forgiveness from those whom they have wronged and from the Almighty. They show repentance by seeking to be better people in the future.
Central to this process is teshuvah, a word that means both return and restitution. Jews believe they redeem themselves through charity, prayer and a return to the better angels of their nature.
Although they ask for divine forgiveness not only for themselves but also for the wider community, personal responsibility is absolutely central. Jews believe they earn forgiveness through the repentance shown by the actions they take.
This is the reverse of today’s “social justice” agenda, which requires “oppressor” groups—such as heterosexuals, men and all white people—to repent for their presumed crimes against those who define themselves as their victims.
Under this agenda, the individual takes center stage not through acknowledging personal misdeeds but by being the victim of others. Instead of asking forgiveness from specific people the individual may have wronged, social justice warriors require entire groups—and, indeed, the whole of white, Western society—to apologize and make restitution to them.
Since individuals may be entirely innocent of the wrongdoing imputed to the “oppressor” groups to which they belong—groups that may themselves be innocent of the charges levelled against them—this cult of apology replaces personal responsibility with gross injustice. It thus vitiates the structure of morality encoded in Judaism.
Moreover, in direct conflict with the Jews’ belief that they can only forgive those who have personally harmed them and only the Almighty can dispense forgiveness to everyone else, social justice warriors arrogantly assume a god-like ability to forgive—or to be more precise, withhold forgiveness from—Western society on the basis of its perceived level of self-flagellation.
This narcissistic hubris derives from the secular belief that the individual is the center of the universe. It has encouraged people to define their own reality according to whatever fantasies they may entertain about creating a better world.
Such a substitution of objective reality by subjective feelings has led to the acceptance of lies as truth and vice versa. This is a major reason why anti-Zionism has achieved such traction in liberal circles over the past few decades.
The reversal of truth and lies, justice and injustice, victim and oppressor is intrinsic to intersectionality, the “social justice” doctrine that views alleged systems of discrimination or disadvantage such as race, class and gender as overlapping and interdependent. This is because “social justice” is based on the belief that all relationships are structures of power, whether political, military or economic.
With Israel and the Jewish people seen as powerful and therefore oppressive, intersectionality has put rocket fuel behind anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism in progressive circles.
This fundamental connection between “social justice” and anti-Jewish attitudes is denied by those circles—for whom any dissent is seen as proof positive of being “right-wing” and therefore evil. This is why their attempts to tackle anti-Jewish bigotry are doomed to failure.
In Britain, Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer has made a determined effort to rid his party of the stain of anti-Semitism that spread so brazenly under his hard-left predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn.
The fruits of these efforts were manifest at the party’s annual conference this week. In his keynote speech, Starmer not only repeated his pledge to “rip out anti-Semitism by the roots,” but also spoke warmly of Israel and referred to the historic solidarity between Labour and its Israeli counterpart.
The significance of this speech was not that it was made by Starmer, a decent man married to a Jewish woman. It was that it received a standing ovation from party members who, instead of waving Palestinian flags en masse as they have done at Labour conferences as recently as last year, sang “God Save the King”—a monarchical first for the party whose customary sing-along choice is “The Red Flag.”
Whether or not this was the result of careful stage management, there seems little doubt that those in the hall had been genuinely revolted by their party’s epidemic of anti-Jewish bigotry and were relieved that Starmer had acted against it with such resolve.
But the openly anti-Jewish hard-left still exists within the party. And in “progressive” circles throughout the West, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are still rampant.
To realize this, you only have to imagine the reaction from liberal Britain and America if Israel is forced to escalate its attempts to quash the increasing levels of Arab radicalization and terrorist violence in the disputed territories of Judea and Samaria, or if it is forced to take military action in Gaza to suppress any renewed attacks from there.
Moreover, while Starmer boasted that Labour was now Britain’s “centrist” party, he is also the leader who in 2020 “took the knee” in support of Black Lives Matter, and who has struggled to say what a woman is.
Any leader who refuses to face down these orthodoxies, which invert right and wrong and deny both rationality and moral responsibility, won’t reduce anti-Jewish and anti-Israel bigotry.
For the fate of Western civilization is linked to its attitude towards the Jews. To be anti-West is invariably to be anti-Jew or anti-Israel; to be anti-Jew or anti-Israel is invariably to undermine Western civilization.
As Ruth Wisse writes: “The war against the Jews remains, as it has always been, a war of ideas against the Torah’s civilizing laws.”
British and American Jews with their heads stuck in the “progressive” sand need to realize that the alliance they must make in order to defend both the Jewish people and the West is not with social justice warriors but with those who oppose them.
Melanie Phillips, a British journalist, broadcaster and author, writes a weekly column for JNS. Currently a columnist for The Times of London, her personal and political memoir Guardian Angel has been published by Bombardier, which also published her first novel The Legacy. Go to melaniephillips.substack.com to access her work.
Be a part of our community
JNS serves as the central hub for a thriving community of readers who appreciate the invaluable context our coverage offers on Israel and their Jewish world.
Please join our community and help support our unique brand of Jewish journalism that makes sense.